Walking Tour Midtown Manhattan – 1
Welcome to your Midtown Manhattan walking tour.
Welcome to your Midtown Manhattan walking tour. This journey is brought to you by The Humane Space. We encourage curiosity and introspection as part of a lifelong journey to knowledge.
Throughout this tour, we offer thought prompts to activate your senses and deepen the experience of being in these unique places.
Begin by selecting a location.
Lotte New York Palace Hotel
455 Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
Welcome to your Midtown Manhattan walking tour. This journey is brought to you by The Lotte New York Palace and The Humane Space, an app that prompts curiosity and wonder within.
Throughout this tour, we’ll provide contemplation prompts, which will activate your senses and deepen the experience of being in these unique places. If you need to, please refer to the tour map above at any time. When you arrive at each new destination, use the pull-down menu on your tour screen to access the tour information for each location.
As always, be aware of your surroundings and make sure that you don’t stray into traffic, especially if you’re looking up at the beautiful architecture we’re about to show you. Now, let’s begin our tour…
When you think of Midtown Manhattan, you may conjure the scenes and sounds of bustling Times Square, honking horns of yellow taxis, or glamorous storefronts lining Fifth Avenue. Midtown is all of that and more, but sometimes we forget to simply look up, or to pause and appreciate the lesser-known wonders that are often hidden in plain sight. This tour reveals a new side of some of Midtown’s greatest landmarks, interspersed with moments of unexpected respite and reflection.
Now, let’s turn our attention to this first stop, the Lotte New York Palace Hotel.
During New York’s Gilded Age in the late 1800s, wealthy Manhattanites built opulent mansions in Midtown. Many of these mansions have since been demolished. However, one of the best-preserved examples from the Gilded Age is the Villard Houses, a U-shaped structure that comprised six residences framing the courtyard you are facing.
The Villard Houses were commissioned by Henry Villard, president of Northern Pacific Railway, and designed in the Romanesque Revival style with Italian Renaissance elements by the acclaimed architects McKim, Mead & White. The firm was founded by Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White—each classically trained and at the top of their profession in the era. The firm is known for several notable buildings in New York, including the original Pennsylvania Station, Brooklyn Museum and Columbia University’s main campus.
The facades of the Villard Houses are made of Belleville sandstone, found in quarries in and around Belleville, New Jersey. The courtyard originally featured a fountain surrounded by a circular driveway for horse-drawn carriages. Designated as a landmark in 1968, the Villard Houses feature lavish interiors that have been well preserved. Renaissance architectural details include 30-foot gilded ceilings, stained glass and intricate wood carvings. If you enjoy a cocktail and it’s after 5pm, The Gold Room cocktail bar within the Villard Houses provides an up-close look at the meticulously restored Gilded Age interiors.
Today, the Villard Houses provide lobby and amenity space for the Lotte New York Palace hotel. Notably, the hotel combines two significant buildings separated by a century: The Villard Houses were built in the 1880s, and a 51-story skyscraper, featuring a bronze-colored aluminum-and-glass facade, was completed in 1980 by Emery Roth & Sons. The newer skyscraper houses the majority of the hotel’s guest rooms.
And now let’s continue toward our next destination. Head south on Madison Avenue toward 50th Street. Turn left on 50th Street towards Park Avenue, at the next intersection.
As you approach Park Avenue, look up to the right and you’ll see another building designed by Emery Roth & Sons. Established in 1938, Emery Roth & Sons was a family-run architecture practice that was renowned for its upscale apartment buildings and influence on post-war Manhattan. Completed in 1955, the international-style Colgate-Palmolive building features aluminum spandrels and a stepped-back profile as it rises from the street. We’ll see yet another Emery Roth & Sons building soon.
Once you arrive at Park Avenue, cross over to the far side, and we’ll pause for a moment. To your right, you’ll see the iconic Waldorf-Astoria, an Art Deco landmark completed in 1931. At the time, it was both the largest and the tallest hotel in the world. The limestone-and-brick-clad structure has stepped massing and culminates in a pair of distinctive towers.
In response to a dispute with his aunt in 1893, William Waldorf Astor built a 13-story hotel, The Waldorf, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street–right next to her home, which was located in an area that had been designated for residences. Waldorf’s cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, persuaded his mother to move uptown, and in 1897, he built the 17-story Astoria Hotel on her former property. Eventually, the hotels were joined and moved uptown. And while John Jacob might have won the battle for the tallest hotel, he ultimately met his fate as a passenger aboard the sinking Titanic in 1912.
To your left, you should see St. Bartholomew’s Church, between 50th and 51st Streets, our next destination. Now, select St. Bartholomew’s Church from the pull-down menu when you’re ready to resume our tour.
St. Bartholomew’s Church
325 Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
Before you stands St. Bart’s, a 1918 church designed by Bertram Goodhue. This marks the third physical location for the church, which was first located on Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place in 1835 and later moved to Madison Avenue and East 44th Street during the late 1800s. The second location was designed by James Renwick, the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and later received the addition of a triple portal to its main facade, which was designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. It was also embellished with Cippolino marble columns and sculptural bronze doors crafted by multiple artists.
While St. Bart’s is often credited as one of Goodhue’s best works, it actually features White’s portal from the previous location. Goodhue adapted his original Byzantine Revival design to showcase the portal, which was beloved by parishioners, and also salvaged a range of materials from the previous church, including stained glass, marble pavers, and choir stalls. St. Bart’s is well known for its Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ–the largest in New York and one of the largest in the world.
By the early 2000s, St. Bart’s had fallen into disrepair, and restoration proved prohibitively expensive. A blessing in disguise came in 2018 when the church negotiated a transfer of more than 50,000 square feet of air rights to JP Morgan to allow the build-out of its new 70-story headquarters at 270 Park Avenue, replacing the international-style Union Carbide Building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. St. Bart’s used the profit of more than $20 million to underwrite its much-needed renovation work, which you can see reflected in today’s refreshed facade.
When you heard that St. Barts opened its doors in 1918, did that date hit a chord? It is, of course, the beginning of the deadly flu pandemic that was sometimes referred to by the misnomer “Spanish Flu.”
Architecture helps connect the past with the present. For instance, the ubiquitous white subway tiles seen in homes and other buildings today became popular in the late 19th century due to infectious illnesses in public buildings and hospitals. They allowed workers to spot dirt and grime for cleaning and disinfection.
Powder rooms also exist in large part due to health reasons. Deliveries of ice, milk, coal and other staples still had to continue even when infections were raging. The half bath allowed visitors to wash their hands without going into the rest of the house. It also encouraged more frequent hand-washing that started as a result of public health campaigns.
As we move onward, think about what might change to public and private buildings and outdoor spaces as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Which changes will likely endure?
Next, walk to 51st Street and cross back over Park Avenue—you’re now heading west.
In the middle of the block, to your right, at 39 East 51st Street, you will see a townhouse that looks a bit out of place amid Midtown’s skyscrapers. Let’s pause here for a minute. Like the Villard Houses, the 1904 Robert McCurdy Mansion is also a hold-out from another era. It was built as one of three speculative homes on the block but is the only one to survive the area’s shift from residential to commercial, beginning in the 1920s, thanks to its adaptation to serve as a private clubhouse, then an art dealer’s headquarters, and later as office space.
Now, continue walking west toward Madison Avenue. Cross over Madison Avenue and continue toward Fifth Avenue. On your left, you will see the backside of our next destination, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
This portion of 51st street is bookended by more mid-century international-style skyscrapers; the Look Building at 51st Street and Madison Avenue is another building by Emery Roth & Sons, and the Olympic Tower at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which features a glass facade designed to reflect St. Patrick’s. When you reach Fifth Avenue, turn left to view the main facade of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Select St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the pull-down menu when you’re ready to read about this magnificent building.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
St. Patrick’s Cathedral hardly needs an introduction. It is the largest Gothic Revival Catholic Cathedral in North America. Designed by James Renwick, the cathedral began construction in 1858 but was soon paused by the American Civil War. It was eventually completed in 1878.
The iconic cathedral measures 332 feet long with a maximum width of 174 feet at its transepts. Its spires rise nearly 330 feet. The interiors are clad in marble and feature extensive stained glass. The northern tower contains nineteen bells, and the church boasts two pipe organs.
St. Patrick’s has been renovated multiple times throughout the past century-plus. The most recent renovation, which began in 2012, was headed by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects to bring it into the 21st century. The renovation efforts achieved a 29 percent reduction in annual energy use via 10 geothermal wells and new mechanical systems. Other strategic architectural interventions included the preservation and stabilization of original materials.
It’s easy to be awed by great architectural works like St. Patrick’s, so much so that you miss the small details.
Take a few minutes and scan the church for something small and specific that stands out–not only because of how it looks but for what its purpose is and especially, how it makes you feel.
Take a photo of the feature if you’re so inclined so that you can re-examine it in greater detail later. If you’re with someone else, discuss what you’ve each discovered.
Next, if you’re facing the front facade of St. Patrick’s, turn left to cross over 51st Street, heading toward 52nd Street along the luxury shopping mecca that is Fifth Avenue.
Be advised that our next stop, Paley Park is closed on the weekends. If you want to skip it, use your tour map to navigate to St. Thomas Church, our fifth stop. Once you reach St. Thomas, select it from your tour screen. If you’re continuing to Paley Park, keep walking for two blocks to 53rd Street.
Cross over to the far side of 53rd and turn right—you’ll see a subway station entrance there. As you walk along 53rd Street, take in the staccato and bass sounds of the city: the honk of horns, the roar of bus engines, and the clank of metal planks as cars drive over them. And then notice how these sounds begin to fade away as you ascend the set of steps that rise to your left just past 1 East 53rd Street.
Select Paley Park from the pull-down menu when you’re ready to begin reading about this unique urban respite.
3 East 53rd Street
You are now standing in Paley Park, which was designed by the landscape architectural firm of Zion Breen Richardson Associates in 1967. This “vest pocket park” spans a mere one-tenth of an acre, and its focal point is a 20-foot high waterfall that spans the entire back wall, with an impressive capacity of 1,800 gallons per minute.
Paley Park was financed by the William S. Paley Foundation—Paley was the former Chairman of CBS—and was featured in the 1980 film “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William H. Whyte. To this day, it serves as a model for successful privately owned public spaces in the city and beyond.
Privately owned public spaces are a very New York concept—private property owners create interior and exterior spaces for public use and enjoyment in exchange for waivers or bonus floor area—a win/win situation. There are nearly 600 such spaces in New York. They provide an important amenity in the form of green space and areas to sit, relax, eat, and, of course, people-watch.
Observe the contrast in materials and textures. The park’s side walls are covered in dense ivy, and the honey locust trees, planted in regular 12-foot intervals, form a canopy above. Lightweight wire mesh chairs flank circular marble tables, lending a light and airy feel against rough-hewn granite pavers.
The design is simple, but the acoustics are sophisticated. The fact that the park is slightly elevated above the street, combined with the sound-barrier qualities of the ivy and tree canopy and the gray noise produced by the water fountain, results in drowning out most city sounds. You might forget, if only for a minute, that you are in the middle of Midtown Manhattan.
Forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku) is a practice that emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a form of mobile meditation. The concept involves taking in—using all of your senses—the forest atmosphere. The key is to be conscious and contemplative as you immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells, and sometimes even tastes.
When forests aren’t available, we can look for other opportunities. Stand or sit near the wall of water and practice being conscious and mindful of how you feel, what you see, hear, and smell.
Let’s also reflect on this 1915 poem by Ellwood Colahan called The Waterfall:
O LITTLE misty waterfall,
Down from the sky-land blown,
Why do the mountains loom so tall
And why do the fir-trees moan?
O little wistful waterfall
How still is the evening grown!
Thine eyes are dim, little waterfall,
Thy voice is a faint, faint sigh.
Ah, must I follow thee, after all,
Away from the Land of the Sky?
Feel free to sit and relax in Paley Park as long as you want. Resume, when you’re ready.
Now, let’s exit Paley Park and turn right, retracing your steps along 53rd Street. Cross Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see a church on the corner to your right. Let’s stop here and talk a moment about St. Thomas Church.
Select St. Thomas Church from the pull-down menu when you’re ready to begin reading about this location.
St. Thomas Church
5th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets
St. Thomas Church was designed by architects Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Goodhue, the architect of St. Bart’s, in the French High Gothic Revival style. Originating in the mid-12th century in France, Gothic architecture has distinctive features like pointed arches, large stained-glass windows, and flying buttresses.
Completed in 1914, the church features 10,000 panels of stained glass and three organs. Stained glass in gothic architecture is extremely prevalent. With their typically tall and arched shape, they were intended to bring as much natural light into the building as possible. Islamic architecture acted as inspiration for Gothic builders who utilized tall, thin, pointed arches to create extremely dramatic vaulted ceilings. The church has an asymmetrical front elevation on Fifth Avenue, which is divided into three sections, reflecting the building’s interior divisions. The famous St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys upholds the Anglican tradition of all-male choral ensembles, performing five services per week.
Now let’s continue along 53rd Street toward 6th Avenue. You’ll note an abrupt transition from the St. Thomas Church’s historic facade to the modern one of the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA. When MoMA expanded in the 1960s and built the large addition adjacent to St. Thomas, blasting from construction damaged the church’s reredos, or the ornamental screens covering the wall at the back of the altar, as well as one of the organs.
Continue to the main entrance of MoMA at 11 W 53rd Street.
Once you reach the entrance of MoMA, select Museum of Modern Art from the pull-down menu.
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
The idea for the Museum of Modern Art as we know it today was conceived by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and two of her friends in 1929. She was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who developed Rockefeller Center, which we’ll visit shortly. After functioning out of a series of rented spaces, MoMA moved into its current 53rd Street home in 1939. The original International-style structure was designed by architects Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. The 1960s saw an expansion and a new sculpture garden designed by Philip Johnson, the Pritzker award-winning American architect best known for his works of modern and postmodern architecture. The garden, which is accessible through the museum’s lobby, is free to the public between 9:00 and 10:15 am daily, if you happen to be visiting during that time.
MoMA’s next expansion came courtesy of multi-award-winning architect César Pelli in 1984, followed by the 2004 renovation and expansion by Yoshio Taniguchi, which nearly doubled exhibition and program space. The most recent renovation and expansion by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Gensler, completed in 2019, increased the museum again by one-third, adding even more exhibition space as well as a new lobby and bookstore. Diller Scofidio + Renfro also helped design the incredible High Line elevated walking journey, which, if you have time, is another wonderful way to experience New York.
This latest expansion also brought a rethinking of how MoMA displays its famed art collection. Galleries that were formerly labeled according to disciplines like photography or architecture, shifted to represent a chronological presentation of work—with different media intermingling, creating a fuller picture of what was happening in the art world at a particular time, rather than being limited to a particular medium.
Have you ever been moved by art? Felt like crying when you saw something beautiful or actually enjoyed a sad movie? How can you feel both ways at once? It’s thought that two systems in the brain that typically aren’t activated at the same time do just that—become simultaneously activated. One has to do with processing the external stimuli (the art), and the other involves inward thoughts about oneself, memories of the past, thoughts of the future, and so forth.
Think about a specific work of art that elicited these complex feelings, whether a painting, film, dance program or even a child’s drawing.
If you would like to pause here and enjoy the Museum of Modern Art, feel free to do so. Otherwise, let’s keep walking along 53rd Street, just past MoMA’s entrance to 53 West 53rd Street.
You should now see a black-faceted tower rising 77 stories from the street. This is 53 West 53rd, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The site is split between three different zoning districts, each having different setback requirements. This guided the design of the tower, which slopes away from the street to culminate in five distinct spires. The exterior curtain wall is set within a concrete diagrid structure, which functions like an exoskeleton and opens up more interior space for each floor. The building, completed in 2020, was praised by former New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, as “the most architecturally significant addition to the Manhattan skyline in recent years.” Jean Nouvel was the recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2008.
Nouvel said of architecture, “Architecture exists, like cinema, in a dimension of time and movement. One thinks, conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage bound up with the succession of spaces through which one passes.”
Now, let’s turn around and retrace your steps along 53rd Street past MoMA and back to Fifth Avenue. When you reach Fifth Avenue, turn right and continue south.
Continue walking south on 5th Avenue. Cross over 52nd Street, and then 51st Street until you see St. Patrick’s Cathedral on your left. Continue for another half block until you see the incredible Atlas sculpture on your right.
Walk two blocks and cross 51st Street. You’ll see St. Patrick’s Cathedral on your left, across Fifth Avenue. On your right, directly across from St. Patrick’s, is the bronze statue called Atlas, which is set within Rockefeller Center’s courtyard. Let’s pause here for a moment.
This Art Deco sculpture, which was installed in 1937, depicts the ancient Greek Titan Atlas holding the heavens on his shoulders. Spanning 45 feet tall and weighing nearly 7 tons, the work was created by the sculptor Lee Lawrie with the help of Rene Paul Chambellan. Lee Lawrie was also commissioned to create a work in St. Bartholomew’s Church, which we previously visited. Lawrie’s work evolved as architecture did, spanning Beaux-Arts to neo-Gothic to art deco styles.
We’ve all felt like we’ve carried the weight of the world on our shoulders at one point or another. It may have seemed like you couldn’t put the weight down, fearing things couldn’t carry on without you. When it’s taken to the extreme, some people refer to this as, “The Atlas Complex.”
Think back to a time when you felt like this. Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Reflect on how and why the weight lifted. Take another moment to acknowledge how you were able to make it through a tough situation.
What is one takeaway or successful strategy from that experience that you could quickly draw upon the next time you feel burdened?
Now, let’s continue walking south on Fifth Avenue across 50th Street, where you will then notice an opening in the middle of the block on your right, leading into the Channel Gardens. Let’s turn right into the gardens.
Now, select Channel Gardens from the pull-down menu.
5th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets
The Channel Gardens is a passageway that frames a picture-perfect view of Rockefeller Center from Fifth Avenue. But don’t ignore the promenade in the foreground! Named after the English Channel, the gardens have featured rotating seasonal botanical installations since prior to World War II.
Extending approximately 200 feet, the gardens feature six granite pools and a large fountainhead sculpture, also designed by Chambellan, at its eastern end. The architect behind Rockefeller Center, Raymond Hood, believed the downhill descent of the channel would help draw people from Fifth Avenue into the complex.
You may be surprised to learn that The Channel Gardens has a link to the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. But let’s back up a bit. These were not the first gardens on this site. David Hosack, a physician and botanist, established the United States’s first public botanical gardens in this area in 1801, called Elgin Botanic Gardens, after his father’s hometown in Scotland. At that time, it was about three and a half miles from the city.
But that’s not why Dr. Hosack’s name may sound familiar. He was also the physician who attended the 1804 duel between Hamilton and Burr, the very same who tried to save Hamilton from his fatal injury.
As you wander through the Gardens, think about the interconnectedness of the past and present. While the city has grown exponentially since the early 1800s, there remains a dedication to gardens and botany.
Take your time walking through the gardens until you reach our final destination, Rockefeller Plaza.
Now, select Rockefeller Plaza from the pull-down menu.
45 Rockefeller Plaza between 49th and 50th Streets
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was the son of America’s first billionaire, the founder of Standard Oil. But rather than live solely off his father’s fortune, he devoted his life to philanthropy. He participated in the creation of various foundations and funds, and, of course, sponsored the construction of Rockefeller Center. He also purchased and donated thousands of acres of land to national parks, contributed to conservation efforts, and financed the construction of museums in Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks.
Rockefeller Plaza was originally conceived as a sunken plaza for luxury shops and restaurants. However, the concept proved to be a flop, as shoppers didn’t like having to descend down and return back up. The shops and restaurants were scrapped after bringing in an expert in artificially refrigerated skating rinks. And so the iconic ice rink was born. These days the rink is a year-round attraction, which doubles as a roller-skating destination in the summer. Beneath Rockefeller Plaza is an underground mall, storage rooms, and the complex’s shipping and loading center. It boasts an impressive 14.5-inch layer of waterproofing.
The centerpiece of the Rockefeller Center is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a 67-story office building that soars above the plaza (you should see the building directly in front of you). It features the Wisdom sculpture, also by Lee Lawrie, above its main entrance. The Top of the Rock observation deck offers panoramic city views.
At one point, there were plans for a mid-block boulevard that would link Rockefeller Center with the Museum of Modern Art, which, Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times, said, “may explain why MoMA is the only major museum that isn’t on a corner or facing a plaza.”
And why did this mid-block boulevard never materialize? Okrent explains, “The Rockefellers tried for years to make it happen. But the since closed 21 Club was in the way, and its owners wouldn’t budge. No matter how powerful the Rockefellers were, in the end, even they were no match for the speakeasy business.”
Our tour ends in the heart of Midtown. From here, you can walk in any direction to find great food, shopping, and more architecture to explore!
This tour is brought to you by The Humane Space. Tag images of your tour on social media with #myhumanespace and we’ll share your journey!
Enjoy the rest of your day in incredible New York City!
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